Based on Heinrich Mann’s eponymous novel Henry of Navarre aka Henry 4 is a large-scale epic about one of the bloodiest chapters in French history. This is a fascinating and eerily beautiful movie. It is a French-German co-production which explains why there are as many French as German actors.
I’m quite familiar with French history from Louis XIV on but what came before is somewhat blurred. I knew about the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day (La St. Barthélemy) and the Edict of Nantes, was familiar with the Queen Margot and Catherine de Medici, I had even heard the famous saying “Paris vaut bien une messe” meaning “Paris is worth a mass” but I wouldn’t have tied all this together and associated it with Henry of Navarre, future King Henry IV of France. What a bloody story, full of treachery, passion, fanaticism, civil war and murder.
Henry, King of the little kingdom of Navarre, is forced to go to war at an early age. By the time he turns twenty it is all he knows. It is the time in which France is divided in two. Catholics are on one side, Protestants (Huguenots) on the other. The Civil War or Wars of Religion rage and tear the country apart. Paris and the court are held by Catholics who are to a certain extent ruled by the Pope. They don’t get married without the assent of the Holy Father. The people of the kingdom of Navarre and Henry himself are Protestants. The opposing parties meet on the battlefield more often than anywhere else.
France is unofficially reigned by the scary Catherine de Medici, the King’s mother. Charles, the King, is an anxious man, constantly afraid of being poisoned or murdered. His fear is well grounded as we will soon find out. Catherine de Medici had the reputation of being a cruel, despotic woman who had people executed on a whim. But even she is tired of war and arranges a marriage between her daughter, the beautiful Margot, and Henry of Navarre.
The marriage is overshadowed by the death of Henry’s mother, presumably she was poisoned. As soon as they are married someone orders to massacre all the protestants in the city which will be the famous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
The following two-thirds of the story follow Henry until he finally becomes Henry IV, King of France. Many people had to lose their life to make this a possibility.
The movie excels in making these people come to life and shows us a King who was far beyond the ordinary. He was much-loved, tolerant and accepting of people of every religious conviction. This may well have been the first step towards France becoming a secular country, something it has remained until today. Henry was also a womanizer, a trait the film-makers enjoyed to illustrate.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story of Henry IV, I’m not going to reveal too much. It should suffice to say that love plays a major role. He will also divorce the Queen Margot as she cannot give him the much-needed heir and will get married to Marie de Medici.
Ulrich Noethen as Charles IX, is very convincing. He is an experienced actor who has starred in movies like The Downfall.
Having studied old French literature I had to read Agrippa D’Aubignés Les Tragiques. It’s a harrowing account of the times and the Wars of Religion. I liked that Agrippa played a prominent role in the movie. He is played by the excellent German actor Joachim Król. Agrippa was one of Henry’s best friends and only left him towards the end, to withdraw from the world and start to write his famous book.
The most fascinating character of them all, is Catherine de Medici. Hannelore Hoger, a German TV star, plays her very well. She gives an uncanny, eerie and quite scary Catherine de Medici.
All in all, I enjoyed Henry of Navarre a lot and will re-watch it. If you like epic movies, beautiful cinematography and French history you will enjoy it.
I’d like to thank Showbox Media Group for sending me a review copy of the movie.
Henry of Navarre is out to buy on Blu-ray and 2 disc-DVD on 4th July 2011, courtesy of Showbox Media Group.